OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — After spending 10 years as a music professor in Oklahoma City, Cami Engles had grown used to spending time at unique local businesses.
Oklahoma City is full of coffee shops, brunch spots, yoga studios, popular breweries and Oklahoma-only boutiques.
So when Engles’ husband got a new job in Shawnee, a town of roughly 31,000 about 45 minutes east of the city, it was an adjustment.
“There weren’t that many places that I wanted to go to just hang out,” Engles, 36, told The Oklahoman. “Initially, I was fantasizing about what I would like to see in my town so I would like living here now. Maybe sitting on a patio and drinking wine with my dog. So I bought a few buildings.”
That was in 2018. Today, Engles has transformed her property into a destination restaurant called Theopolis Social Club, which serves high-end cocktails and meals using local ingredients prepared by a chef.
“We are lucky to have Theopolis in small-town Shawnee,” reads a recent Google review. “The food, drinks and atmosphere remind me of places we’ve visited in Manhattan! Definitely check it out.”
This type of story is a recent phenomenon for the state.
All over Oklahoma, small towns are being reimagined through efforts to revitalize local economies with new entertainment options and experiences.
The goal: attracting and retaining a generation that is entrepreneurial, community oriented and looking for a low cost of living with a high quality of life.
“I think the main reason this is happening is there is a lot of optimism in our state right now,” said Brent Kisling, director of the state Department of Commerce.
“Sometimes, you have to hit rock bottom before you can get back up. And the budget shortfalls, the teacher walkout — that time in our (state’s) history woke a lot of people up to the fact that we need to change our ways.”
Chickasha sits southwest of Oklahoma City and has been home to a population of roughly 16,000 for the last three decades.
Cassandra Ersland grew up in the town and said entertainment options were limited — friends just got together at someone’s house.
But Ersland recently moved back to be closer to family after living in Denver for years.
Many of her former classmates have also been moving home, and she said there is a shared vision to bring back ideas from the bigger cities.
“I felt like there was a real push but not only from our generation,” said Ersland, who has been president of Chickasha’s Chamber of Commerce since last April.
“The older generation saw us going to brunch in Oklahoma City or Norman or going to the breweries out there. They wanted to know what they could do to keep us in the community.”
So partnerships have been formed, and Chickasha has seen new businesses crop up all around: A brewery, a bar and lounge, clothing boutiques, a smoothie cafe.
A coffee shop will come soon, and the city is pushing to put in a park downtown with an area for food trucks. A young professionals coffee hour will start in March.
“It is huge,” Ersland said.
East of Tulsa in Claremore, Main Street Director Jacob Garrison said he moved to the town to raise his family in a close-knit community.
But he believes the area can have both a small-town feel and improved quality of life to keep residents engaged.
So Claremore has invested in infrastructure and beautification, and new events and festivals aim to keep community members walking along the downtown strip. Unique shops by local owners promote a ‘you’ll only find it here’ mentality.
“We are capitalizing on telling our history, but also showing that we have 21st century ideas,” Garrison said.
Nationally, particularly on the coasts, this younger generation of professionals has been changing the economy for years, noted Kisling, the state commerce director.
Now, Oklahoma is catching up to that trend. The state’s smaller communities offer affordable housing and building prices, as well as a business more easily becoming “a big fish in a small pond very quickly,” he added.
Engles, the Shawnee business owner, said the affordability of her small town was the main reason she could start a new company.
“I never would have done this if I had lived in Oklahoma City or Tulsa. … It’s so much cheaper to get started here,” Engles said.
Garrison said he believes this new direction is a positive (as in new tax revenue and happier residents), but it has been surprising for some long-time community members. He said balance is key.
“It is important to stay true to who we are as small towns, and we’ll remember that,” Garrison said.
Hard numbers and data to track the flow of young professionals across the state and the businesses they start are still in the works, Kisling said.
But Census data has shown steady population growth of people ages 20 to 40 over the last several years.
“It’s a fun time to be in Oklahoma right now,” Kisling said.